13 May 2012

It's Big and it's Hairy

In this season of Noah's Ark weather, ordinary gardens have had a lack of colour and flowers. The weeds though, are positively Old Testament. Dandelions on roadsides are two feet long and hairy bittercress (above) is becoming more embittered and increasingly hairy. In a normal world its little round leaves and miniature flowers will keep it at dolls house size, mainly because it is so easy to flick out, in passing. But until this weekend we've been avoiding outdoors altogether, and the weeds are having a wonderful time.

I had never noticed the existence of the hairy bittercress before reading Children and Gardens by Gertrude Jekyll. In her seductively bossy way she illuminates the virtue of the root: 'Put between two bits of bread and butter it is delicious.' The book is addressed directly to her audience of children, an attentive generation of proto-gardeners. No interruptions please as she further instructs: 'You eat it for nursery tea.'

Nursery tea may be enhanced by this perma-flowering weed but the same cannot be said of its constant companion, the shepherd's purse. Unless you can grab the latter before it flowers, the taste is dreadful. However: its healing qualities are immense, concerning the life force of a human being. Read all about shepherds' purse, cousin of the hirsute bittercress, in my 'Way of the Weed' latest, available to look at for free on the Observer Organic Allotment blog. See also what a real shepherd's purse was made of in the Comments section: this is often the most edifying part.

For genuine card-carrying herbalism visit Botanical Bird.


  1. Have you got a copy of Alice Oswald and Jessica Greenman's Weeds and Wild FLowers?
    Hairy Bittercress is a boozer, 'the way she weeps is so creepy-strong, in her tumbler of gin'

  2. As my vegetable garden is full of hairy bittercress (fabulous name!) rather than vegetables, I'll have to try eating these instead.

    In a dank part of my garden I have also found mushrooms the size of dinner plates, sadly I don't have the knowledge to know if they are edible or not. Raising mushrooms might be a more sensible option to tomatoes this year.

    1. Edible - h'mm maybe. Life-threatening more like! Most mushrooms haven't been tested to see whether they're good to eat because of a lack of volunteers.
      Anyway -- don't know why tomatoes think they're so great; they're in the same family as deadly nightshade.